Diplomatic Games

Who’s Rooting for Syria at the Olympics?

Despite a human-rights crisis at home, the nation is set to send 10 athletes to the Olympic Games in London—including a sharpshooter. Katie Paul on the team’s lukewarm reception.

07.15.12 4:11 PM ET

Even with a civil war brewing at home, the Games must go on.

Syria, increasingly isolated on the world stage amid a government crackdown on protests that the U.N. says have killed more than 10,000 people, is set to send at least 10 athletes to the Olympic Games in London at the end of this month, setting up an steely reception in Britain—and a complicated mix of patriotism and rebellion back home.

The delegation would be Syria's biggest since the Moscow Games in 1980, said a Syrian sports reporter who requested anonymity in talking to the media. Majed Ghazal has a fair shot at snagging a medal in track-and-field events, he said; other athletes include boxer Wissam Salamni, weight lifter Ahed Joughili, swimmers Azad Barazi and Bayan Jumaa, cyclist Omar Hassanein, and equestrian Ahmad Hamsho, who will be riding his horse Wonderboy.

The likely competitors also count three women in their ranks, including Syria's first-ever female weight lifter, Soraya Sabah. Rounding out the team are runner Ghafran Muhammad, and—sure to raise some eyebrows, given the political context—sharpshooter Rayya Zineddin.

Yet in many quarters back home in Syria, these are not the athletes drawing applause.

Just this week it was Firas al-Khatib, a former member of the national soccer team, who drew a fevered reception in a packed conference room in Kuwait as he announced his defection to a crowd of cheering expats. “I will not play with the Syrian national team,” the 29-year-old declared, cheers swelling, “so long as any cannon is opening fire on any area in Syria.” Green, white, and black flags of the Syrian uprising waved around him, as scarf versions lay draped around nearly every neck in the room. “Abu Hamzeh, God protect you,” the crowd shouted, clapping and chanting his teknonym as he waved his hands above his head.

Al-Khatib's impassioned reception must be envied by his counterparts on the Olympics team. In late June British officials refused to grant a visa to the head of the Syrian Olympic Committee, Gen. Mowaffak Joumaa, citing his links to President Bashar al-Assad's regime. Mohammed Hamsho, a Sunni businessman on the EU sanctions list for alleged corrupt regime ties, has also been barred from attending the games, even though his 19-year-old son, Ahmad, is set to compete in equestrian events.

The International Olympic Committee has not taken the full step of suspending the entire Syrian Olympic Committee, appearing to nix early speculation that Syrian athletes might march and play under the five-ring Olympic flag rather than the national flag. (Barring last-minute changes on the Syria policy, only Kuwait will suffer that indignity this year; their national Olympic committee has been suspended since 2010 due to government interference.) The IOC has, however, been sending its funding directly to the Syrian athletes, bypassing the normal route through the Syrian Olympic Committee. Attempts to contact the Syrian Olympic Committee, embassy in London, and Ministry of Information were rebuffed.

Left unclear is how the Syrian Olympians themselves feel about their blacklisted brethren. General Joumaa recently told a Syrian sports site that all of the athletes and officials going to London are supporters of the president who will “protect the Syrian people’s love for their country and stand fully behind the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad.” Hamsho, the equestrian whose father was banned, reiterated the point to The Telegraph, insisting that his government was only targeting “terrorists” in its crackdown. “We must represent the Syrian people, and we must also represent Dr. Bashar al-Assad,” he told the reporter. “We all agree on this point of view as a team.” Aside from a brief dispatch from the training field in Damascus that steered clear of politics, his teammates have stayed silent.

But al-Khatib is not alone among Syrian athletes in stepping aside to condemn the government's violence against civilians. Star goalkeeper Abdelbaset Sarout, 20, threw in his lot with the rebels in Homs last year, leading protesters in chants and revelry even as the city came under heavy shelling. He also crooned an a cappella version of one of the uprising’s anthems, “Heaven, Heaven, Heaven,” that quickly became the ringtone of many a young revolutionary throughout Syria. The Syrian national sports association handed him a lifetime participation ban.

Sarout told Britain’s ITV News in April that the majority of Syria’s athletes don’t want to take part in the London Olympics, because they don’t want to play for a flag in which they have no pride or faith. “I personally know the majority of the athletes don’t want to take part, and they are only going [out of] fear [for] their families, the regime repercussions if they don’t comply,” he said in the interview.

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Al-Khatib could not vouch for the Olympic team, but said the same was certainly true for the majority of his fellow soccer players. “It would be impossible to see this many people sacrificing, being detained, being killed, and then serve as some kind of model by playing on the national team,” he said. It’s something of a moot point for him and Sarout, since Syria’s soccer team was knocked out of the Olympic qualifying rounds in March after a loss to Uzbekistan. But the grievance is personal; al-Khatib's own brother, detained in Homs four months ago by military security after participating in protests, is still missing.

Despite the alleged duress, Sarout did not call for Syrians to be banned from participation. Rather, he said in the ITV interview that he supported the IOC’s decision to bring the players to London, claiming they were under an information blackout in Syria and could only learn the full extent of the crackdown from abroad. Likewise, the Syria Revolution 2011 website posted a statement this week requesting that Olympic authorities allow “the Free Syrian people” to nominate their own captain to lead the team in the opening ceremony, selecting 30-year-old boxer Nasser al-Shami, who won a bronze medal in the Athens Olympics in 2004. Al-Shami was reportedly injured by a sniper’s bullet last July as security forces re-entered his hometown of Hama, after it had slipped briefly out of government control.

In their own way, fans are standing by their team, trying to make a distinction between the individual athletes and the institutions they represent. “The officials just go after whatever benefits they can grab. But the players want Syrians to be proud of their team,” said Issam, 25, an aspiring sports broadcaster from Qamishli who counts himself “unemployed because of Bashar al-Assad.” He rattled off names of players like al-Khatib who have donated money to supporting refugees or carried the revolution's flag. “It's like any other state association in Syria: full of corruption.”